10 July 2012

Namibia: Reflections On the African Union Ten Years On


On the back of the inconclusive 18th summit in January 2012, the African Union (AU) was supposed to convene its 19th summit toward the end of June 2012 in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

However, due to contradictions in Africa's foreign policy relations, the summit had been shifted to Addis Ababa after the President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, alluded to the possible arrest of Sudan's Omar Al Bashir in light of the latter's indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Still, the shift to Addis does not deflect from the form and substance of the July 9-16, 2012 summit, which in all likelihood will not be ordinary, as it will mark a decade since the transformation of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) into the African Union in 2002.

While the OAU manifestly fulfilled its role and historical mandate of decolonisation, the vision and mandate of the AU is largely premised on the development and integration of the African continent. In light of this developmental premise and emphasis in its Constitutive Act, which entered into force on May 26 2002, the African Union represents a major shift from the legal, political and institutional framework of its predecessor. With the summit looming, it is fitting to debate and reflect how this organisation has fared a decade on, both in light of its promise of new principles, new thinking, including new approaches to African challenges and governance. Crucially, the summit theme 'Boosting Intra-African Trade' captures a new agenda and the importance of economic growth and trade integration as essential aspects in the continent's integration in the global economy.

The majority of Africa's 54 states are to varying degrees democratic. There have been slow but steady developments with regard to forms and shapes of democratic governance as pillars of economic growth and development. The African Union, for instance, has taken an explicit decision not to recognise countries in which civilian governments have been overthrown by their militaries. Also, the peer review mechanism of the New Economic Partnership for Development (NEPAD) has as its explicit rationale the strengthening of democracies and the accountability mechanisms within it. In Côte d'Ivoire, a democratically elected president finally assumed office in 2011 after a decade of political deadlock and civil strive. In one of Africa's more or less stable democracies, Senegal, a head of state seeking a de facto third term lost an election early this year and accepted defeat graciously.

Significant progress has been made in creating the institutional infrastructure and processes that are necessary for a more efficient African Union. In addition to these, the African Union has been undertaking crucial peacekeeping missions in various parts of Africa, including Burundi, Sudan and Somalia. Importantly, institutional relationships and coordinating mechanisms across diverse issue-areas have been built with various international organisations, including the United Nations and the European Union. Moreover, through the African Union, various attempts had been made with regard to streamlining the activities of regional organisations and economic communities in line with the objectives of the African Union. Even if modest in their successes, interventions and the legitimisation of the AU's cross-cutting agenda have allowed Africa to focus on the key challenges of governance, education and economic growth. These have without doubt legitimised the AU as the principal interlocutor in African affairs, worth strengthening.

It deserves mention however that the AU is still a work in progress and the past decade of its existence did not mask contradictions between what the AU ambitiously purports to be on the one hand, and on the other the structural and institutional impasse in which it finds itself when it comes to achieving Africa's developmental aims. A continental institution is a sum of its composite parts. Therefore, it can only be efficient if the constituting membership allows it to function in line with its charter - thereby assuming and building its own institutional dynamism and organisational efficiency. In light of these challenges, the roadmap that emerge out of the upcoming summit in Addis ought to be transformational and should crucially define the aspirations of the African Union for the next ten years. It should not be just another summit.

Three aspects ought to enjoy specific attention. First, the summit should put specific emphasis on the translation of modest democratic governance into concrete developmental deliverables in African countries. Even if economic growth has been positive over the past decade in many countries, this has not put a dent in widespread poverty and underdevelopment. Second, more attention should be placed than what has been otherwise the case thus far on the strengthening of regional economic communities as essential anchors in matters of peace, security and development. The past ten years have shown that regional organisations are the best platforms to promote peace, security and development. The AU should play a facilitator role based on clearly defined values, norms and objectives. For this to happen, the institutional capacity of the African Union should be strengthened, with more powers devolved to the Commission. Third, with the anomaly of two candidates, one from a small country, Jean Ping of Gabon and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from a big country, South Africa contesting the chairmanship of the AU commission, the summit should provide clear guidelines with regard to the leadership of the Commission.

Vague and ambitious declarations are less likely to create a more solid African Union as a pivot in Africa's integration into the global economy. Much of what emerges out of Addis depends on how pragmatic and programmatic the vision of the AU is going forward. African leaders should leave the summit with clearly defined, but manageable outcomes.

* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is Head of the African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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